“A desire for privacy does not imply shameful secrets; Moglen argues, again and again, that without anonymity in discourse, free speech is impossible, and hence also democracy. The right to speak the truth to power does not shield the speaker from the consequences of doing so; only comparable power or anonymity can do that.”
Well, Halloween's coming up and it looks like we're about to talk about some scary, dramatic stuff involving emotional incontinence and anonymity :-).
As some of you know, last weekend at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2018, Chris Connaker of Computer Audiophile gave a talk on MQA ("The Truth Lies Somewhere in the Middle"). As it turned out, it was scheduled as the last presentation of the show on a Sunday afternoon. Here's a video recording of the event:
Perhaps it's not a surprise to everyone that the room wasn't overflowing with people (I count about 30) given that it's right at the end of the show. Also no surprise if we look at the audience and consider the demographic being represented (at least there were a few women in there, I don't know if any of them spoke up though).
If you watch the video in its entirety, obviously the seminar did not go so well. In retrospect, one can imagine that walking into an event like RMAF with a message that inevitably will contain criticisms of a product that has been promoted widely by the audiophile press, sold to audiophiles as the next great "revolutionary" format to grace one's digital playback system, and in a session where it turned out multiple company representatives and pro-MQA evangelists attended, it was probably a given that there would be some unhappiness!
I see that Chris tried to maintain the humor level. Alas there were constant disruptions. Inability to concede on facts. Claims of "double standard", etc... Let's talk about this video, some of the contents, and some personal thoughts on this whole "being anonymous" issue.
I. On the presentation itself...As you're probably aware, I wrote the article "MQA: A Review of controversies, concerns, and cautions" for Computer Audiophile back in early March 2018 putting together the pieces I had been interested in, investigated on in this blog, many times with help over the years from other technically/objectively inclined audiophiles. Chris had contacted me given the ruckus over the years about MQA and knowing that he runs a community-oriented site that values member input (I've been a member there since 2010, and if you look at the history, I've not always been in agreement with Chris), I was certainly glad to put together a summary with results and references for people to read further should they want to.
Before that article even went "to press", Chris had sent a copy of the draft to MQA/Bob Stuart to review. Chris was open with me that this was the deal, and I had no qualms about this. Certainly this was honorable and fair. As Chris mentioned in his MQA seminar, I am aware that he called MQA HQ and spoke to Mr. Stuart (and maybe others) right before the article went live. But I do not believe there was ever any written response to refute the claims or alternative graphs/charts/results to show that what was demonstrated in the article was inaccurate. It has now been seven months. I did not receive any comments from MQA on my blog through this time (although back in 2016 I wrote this entry about a message that got sent to spam). I received no private message(s) to suggest I was in error whether from MQA or other concerned audiophiles. I read almost every comment people left on that article (there have been over 800!).
As you can see in the "MQA The Truth lies Somewhere in the Middle" thread on CA, Chris announced it beforehand and discussed his intent. Chris was interested in finding a middle ground in discussions despite a few forum participants thinking that he was perhaps being too "balanced". To be honest, I was thinking he would be a little "soft" as well! After all, when essentially every claim made by MQA has been debunked or found to be inferior to the status quo (ie. hi-res FLAC), if Chris did not express some criticisms, that would simply be uncomfortably charitable and biased towards MQA.
For those who want a closer look, Chris' slide set can be downloaded here. Well, I really have to hand it to Chris, I think he did a great job walking the line with that 34-slide presentation! That was a much bolder and honest discussion which did not skirt around obvious issues than I had anticipated. Claims that I had almost already forgotten about were brought out (oh yeah, there was that "neuroscience research" claim back in the day wasn't there?). We were reminded of the old "MQA Lossless" logo from around 2015-2016. He touched on the complexity of studio productions (8:25 with reference to Brian Lucey and his comments) and how difficult it would be to "fingerprint" the complete studio process...
Unhappy MQA execs and PR people? You betcha. But at this point, how else would any other presenter talk about MQA when presenting the facts!? No way in late 2018 after all that's said and done are we going to go back to last year's MQA presentation by Danny Kaey's style of appealing to the audience to "Let's get behind MQA cuz it's the only train in town!". The MQA contingent might be happy about such a harmless, ambivalent presentation, but Chris would be laughed out of town by the community of audiophiles as a whole if he sent such a ridiculous message!
As we can see from the video, MQA got angry. For a talk that aims to find some kind of middle ground, it's hard when emotions ratchet up. Things started to get ugly by 10:20 when Ken Forsythe (MQA Director of Market Development) asked "Who is Archimago and what's his credentials?" Then he goes into the comment "Well I think that's a double standard, everybody here understands Bob Stuart's credentials or I think they do... In transparency and fairness, you should tell us who he is and what he does."
We'll talk more about who I am later. But is this actually a "double standard"? Remember, the idea of a double standard is when we have a rule being applied to different people when it should be the same. What "rule" or "standard" is unfairly being applied here? Mr. Stuart is trying to sell you something that's supposed to be fantastic. He and his company wants your money. He and his company, plus the mainstream audiophile press, makes and perpetuates claims that they have done something amazingly "revolutionary" even. If we were in a job interview and Chris is trying to hire someone to create some new audio hardware, then by all means, hire Bob Stuart, not Archimago based on credentials. But this is not about applying the same rules to all candidates. It's about whether criticisms charged have merit, especially when the criticisms are being argued on an objective level that can be reproduced by anyone who wants to look - not merely expressing opinions without evidence. Why can't they demonstrate the contrary based on that same level of argument?
The question got raised right as Chris said I wrote the article and showed an image of the frequency anomaly found on Bruno Mars' song "Locked Out of Heaven" as played back "unfolded" by the MQA system:
I trust that most audiophiles can look at that FFT and realize that there's obviously something not right about that graph. Does it matter if my credentials included a PhD in astrophysics, or if I trained as an audio engineer, or if I served burgers at the local McDonald's? When simply by using free tools while streaming Tidal and some basic knowledge of Adobe Audition (or free Audacity for that matter), anyone can find that abnormality?! (As Chris stated, in fact, the issue was already posted on YouTube almost a year before my article. And here I see Chris made a video himself.)
As I recall, it was not the town PhD rocket scientist who called out "the Emperor has no clothes!"
At 11:00, Chris basically said as much - "This can be reproduced by anyone with the requisite skills". But that's of course not good enough for Mr. Forsythe - "I just want to know who he is and what his credentials are for producing this..." Honestly guys, the image above is one of the easiest anomalies to find and I'm sure those guys can just ask Bob Stuart if they really don't know why certain songs demonstrate that behaviour! Måns Rullgård's work exploring MQA's "rendering" function I'm sure took him many hours of combing through the code and creating his decoding tool. Capturing the various impulse responses, dithering, noise shaping likewise was more involved than having a look at Bruno Mars' song.
Maybe there's a point for Mr. Forsythe to suggest "... it would be interesting to know if this is a competitor looking to come up with something smart or clever(er) than what we have, or is this an individual, or is this somebody clever with Photoshop." As has been said many times, I am not a member of the Industry. But even if I were, so what? It doesn't explain or excuse what is found and how the findings contradict claims of "the exact studio sound" - the point that Chris was making when the image was shown.
Then there's the question of "Has anybody else reproduced what he's produced?" (Of course others have... and yet again "Why won't you release his name?"). At 14:20, Forsythe made the "anonymous source" comment. I'm glad someone mentioned that he can just come to the blog here or send me a message on the audio forums I visit if he wants to talk. Bravo to the audience member.
This is important because although I am writing with a pseudonym, I am not all that anonymous! Over the years, a number of collaborators and friends know who I am, including some in the audiophile Industry such as Chris and others in the press. The fact that my pseudonym has stuck I think speaks well of the company I keep :-). I've written almost 300 articles over the years on this blog so I'm not just jumping in, taking a stab at MQA, and then disappearing into the underground as that nebulous "anonymous source"! I first wrote about "Meridian MQA Concerns" in January 2015. I think from my writings, one can tell that there is a "real person" behind the pseudonym with a life outside the audio hobby.
At 15:50 we have MQA CEO Mike Jbara chiming in, claiming that Chris was given "exhaustive" stuff from March 2016, and acknowledging they don't use that MQA Lossless logo "any longer", and that "there's only one component of it that's lossless" (great - so 2 of 3 components must therefore be lossy?). He then plays some kind of weird victim role that people "don't seem to want to be transparent about how they create results" (huh?). "So why aren't we showing Bob's (Stuart) answers to each one of those points on your slide?" Hmmmm, didn't Chris just say that Bob didn't provide a response countering the MQA article posted on CA earlier this year? Has Bob said anything more about the neuroscience claim? Did Bob say anything when Brian Lucey commented on MQA in his interview last year (I somehow don't think documents from 2016 would cover this, Mr. Jbara)? BTW, Mr. Jbara, the comment about bit-depth at 18:00 was not about "MQA-CD". Please, let's not open the MQA-CD Pandora's Box shall we?
And so it continued. (BTW there is an interesting discussion by Jbara at 29:00 where he tries to appeal to artists in some way around the economics. Interesting words but I'm not sure if the thinking was logical... Lemme know in the comments if you heard and understood what he said and if it made sense.)
I have to hand it to Chris for doing his best to keep his cool in the context of this barrage. As you can see, it gets uglier as civility takes a back seat by the time digital rights management (DRM) gets talked about and people start to bang tables (33:30). Why's this guy so angry!?
Of course Chris can't refute the Christoph Engemann presentation. Nor should he go banging tables and telling Christoph "There is/was/never will be DRM!" as the guy above seems to be insisting because he heard it from these "industry leaders" in the room.
The point of the DRM discussion is both real and a hypothetical exercise. Nobody at this point is accusing MQA of copy protection (which typically is the first thing that comes to mind with consumers) currently or necessarily ever. But it is a fact that they have already implemented a control mechanism for playback using cryptographic signatures embedded in the music stream, the DACs that play MQA have incorporated the company's proprietary code in their firmware, and of course any software developed must be licensed. At each level, there is a certain ability to control the way the data is decoded or played depending on the interpretation of the cryptographic signature. MQA could decline hardware and software companies they see as not willing to comply with their rules (remember, there is an inherent "anti-competitive" nature to rights controls). Rights are already "managed" as part of the euphemistic "authentication" mechanism. Honestly, it's fine for a company to do that as part of their business model (I've discussed this before). But the consumer (and industry as a whole) has the right to consider whether this is a desirable "feature" at a time in history when open, high-quality standards are the norm and one doesn't have to hand over control/"authentication" to any corporation - especially since from an audio quality perspective, there's no evidence that we're gaining anything from doing so.
So what if Forsythe / Jbara / Stuart / et al. say "There's no DRM"? Perhaps they can also define for us what they see as digital rights management before flat-out denying it. Remember, once the control/authentication mechanism is in place, there could be changes to the consumer experience over time. The potential exists that every once awhile the "Terms of Service" might change, implemented with firmware and software updates for example. There's no risk of this if you own a FLAC file and use any of the countless FLAC music players. Christoph's use of the word "trojan" and the importance of considering that potential is IMO wise as a consumer even if one feels that the MQA company has the most noble of intentions.
I think that's enough.. Let's move on from the video itself. Let me talk about something I can address that was posed and insisted upon in this video - the topic of anonymity.
II. On Anonymity...In his book The Blind Giant (2013), quoted above, in the chapter titled "Work, Play and Sacred Space", the professor of law at Columbia University Eben Moglen comments on the importance of anonymity in public discourse and free speech. While anonymity in news reporting has often been associated with articles where a journalist will quote anonymous sources after having vetted the person as reliable and trustworthy, this is just a piece of the concept of anonymity Moglen is talking about. I am obviously not "Deep Throat", have no trade secrets to share on my blog, nor do I hope to ever need to be in protective custody :-).
Moglen is talking about the right to anonymity in the age of social media and digital identities (part of that triad of the rights to secrecy, autonomy, and anonymity - in other words, the right to privacy).
Freedom to express a difference of opinion is obviously to be expected in any open and honest discussion. I trust that over the years, readers have not found me acting rudely, speaking bizarrely, personally attacking anyone, or creating discord for the sake of anarchy while hiding under the pseudonym. If possible, I like producing and publishing objective results, generally with procedures described and with adequate detail should anyone want to verify the findings. In fact, discussions and opinions formed out of objective, empirical methods IMO are the most meaningful since "hi-fi" consumer products are based on science, technology, and engineering.
But anonymity is not a "free ride". It doesn't mean I have the right to defame MQA, lie about tests I didn't run, or make money off targeting MQA from some rival company. One does not need to be anonymous to lie, cheat, or be unethical. Depending on the prevailing culture, it is possible that those who are anonymous are the only ones who truly can be the most free, honest, and yes, even ethical. Starting off under a pseudonymous handle meant that credibility must be built from nothing. "Archimago" is the contents of this blog and the persona I have chosen to present when I'm online in the audio forums. As you can see, I didn't just pop up out of the blue contributing an article about MQA for Computer Audiophile. Articles on this blog have spanned close to 6 years, and within the articles, readers can get to "know" who I am as an audiophile; the kind of equipment I have, what kind of "sound" I like, what my listening room looks like, some of the music I listen to, and of course my philosophy on the audiophile pursuit. Is this not a complete enough online "identity" as it pertains to my views and contributions to this hobby with MQA as only a part of that broader perspective? I would even argue that readers know more about my stance on audiophilia than that of the majority of audio reviewers out there.
I think the idea of anonymity/pseudonymity might be particularly uncomfortable for the audiophile press. So often, product reviews begin with some kind of bio of the product designer. Why he wants to make a DAC a certain way. How he started up the company 20 years ago. What history he has with previous companies and what reputation he enjoys among the audiophile "intelligentsia". While this might be of interest or even entertaining to read at times (hilarious with cable designers BTW), no man (or woman) is infallible. I can have respect for many in the Industry, but I'm too old to believe or desire to be graced by "heroes". In my opinion, a product should succeed or fail on its merits, not whether it was backed by a "reputable" personality any more than whether it was blessed by the pope and his high priests.
Sure, Bob Stuart has done many good things in his long career, yet this doesn't mean any of us should simply follow his claims for MQA without some critical evaluation (especially when the concerns are this broad!).
So then, in March 2018, a blogger posts a review article on CA having connected with Chris Connaker to verify his identity and discuss a desire to remain anonymous. The article is based on years of previous postings with the article even titled as "a review".
And the best "Team MQA" could do at Chris' presentation was disrupt, at times insisting that they needed to know who this guy is, as if that in itself will change something, instead of responding to the article with some tangible insights after having 7 months to think about this?!
III. So, who are you???Do you still need to ask?
Fine, there are legitimate disclosure questions I can answer of course. Let's try a little Q&A...
Q: Do you have any affiliations with the audio Industry, own shares in any company, have investment instruments, or have financial dealings otherwise that could result in personal gain based on your blog material?
Q: Do you have any financial interest in seeing MQA fail?
A: NO. In fact that would actually mean the MQA decoding feature on my Oppo UDP-205 which I paid for becomes useless. :-)
Q: Did you make any money off your MQA article for Computer Audiophile?
A: Yes. I received the usual writer's fee; no different from any other contributor for an article on the front page. I see Chris is looking for writers, go ahead and contribute!
Q: Do you make any money off your blog?
A: Yes. A few dollars here and there in Amazon gift certificates and AdSense payouts for clicks. Varies every month of course depending on traffic. Enough to buy a CD once awhile, maybe a computer peripheral like a replacement hard drive here and there. All of this an insignificant part of the income from the day job.
A: Mainly because I found the usual audiophile magazines remarkably hollow and devoid of useful content (personal opinion). Forums are useful but some topics demanded articles of their own rather than ending up buried in long threads. I figured I might as well ask some questions, present my take on common issues, and run some measurements myself.
I enjoy meeting the people in this hobby whether in real life or virtually. Writing the articles provided opportunities to learn more about audio tech, and share these ideas. I started this blog about 6 years ago because my kids were getting older, more independent, so I had more time to pick up my hobbies again and write these posts usually in the evenings when the world's quiet and post on weekends after proofreading.
Q: So then, what are your credentials and background?
A: Clearly what the guys on the video are most interested in :-). Let me say this... I studied computer science in my undergrad days. After that I went on to further postgraduate training and my career path remained in the sciences.
I have a professorship position in my university which gives me access to people, research and academic materials. I have papers in the academic literature and book chapters to my name in my CV. My position intersects academia, public services, NGOs, and even some private industry. I teach students, travel internationally to present, engage in administration and program development. None of this involves the audio industry although the technologies I come across in research could be applied in some ways to certain products.
Managing one's "digital identity" is of some interest and significance for me, not because there is anything "shameful" (as per the Harkaway quote), but rather one can and should always be able to execute one's rights.
Hopefully this is adequate self-disclosure and these answers might put into context more of what you see here. Most importantly, I trust there's nothing here in the disclosures that suggests I'm trying to derail MQA based on personal financial gain. As a hobbyist, I see no benefits and I feel that I am free to express that point and show people why...
We live in a world where even the Most Powerful Man on Earth seems to need his ego stroked, and feels he needs to prefix his Twitter account with "@real". A world where it appears many seek to document and advertise their lives on social media. I prefer to see the "Information Superhighway" literally as just that. An efficient mechanism whereby we can share information broadly. Other than word-of-mouth or a link to this blog on forums I contribute to, I don't pay anything or ask others to advertise the contents. There are no "like" buttons here. People are free to come and read and share here as they please (within reason of course). I hope that articles and comments I share in words and intent will stand on their own rather than depend explicitly on the strength of the character behind the claims.
As always, I encourage the readership to empirically test beliefs and impressions themselves to seek out knowledge, present opinions based on demonstrable evidence, and feel free to correct me when I am wrong. Most of all, stay rational. Notice that over the years, the comments have been civil around here! No need to get personal, or angry... As is said in the world of sports "Play the ball not the man." Indeed, show some sportsmanship in intellectual debate.
One last point I want to make about freedom online. As the "real life" guy, I expect no recognition nor any privilege. I want to be able to slip into Rocky Mountain Audio Fest unnoticed as just another audio consumer because that's all I am (or want to be) in this hobby. If my writings can help improve the level of discussion among hobbyists, then great, I have accomplished my intent. I also want to one day "hang up my hat" and "retire" from writing about audio if another hobby comes along, if other priorities take over, or if there's simply nothing more to say. The last thing I want is for my hobby to turn into yet another commitment!
IV. "Listening to the winds of change..."Permit me to end off with some thoughts about this hobby brought out by this little episode.
I look around the room at that audience in the video.
While Chris isn't particularly "young" (no worries Chris, we're about the same age), although this is only a small sampling of a small venue, I suspect the predominant demographic of "later middle age and older males" at these shows is not a surprise for anyone. So often, the question gets asked - "Where are the Millennials?" But other than Chris himself and what looks like less than a handful of others, I also want to ask "Where are the next generation of 40-somethings?" in this hobby that the Baby Boomers will need to pass the torch on to in the next few years? Are they as numerous as the number of 50-somethings, 60-somethings, or 70-somethings at these hi-fi shows? If so, what exhibits do they visit and where in all of the audiophile world do they find their voice and their values?
I believe significant changes are coming for the audiophile hobby in the not-distant-future. This will not just include what products we support but also how we think. It won't be sudden of course as the thinking of enthusiast hobbyists and consumers take time to evolve. Along the way there will be points of contention - like MQA. How these contentious issues are resolved will produce the social mood, the zeitgeist of the hobby as it flows through the lives of the generations of people who participate.
My feeling is that we are witnessing a "post-High-End audio" trajectory with MQA clearly demonstrating, perhaps like never before, the importance of objective analysis beyond appeals to certain "authorities", many of whom have been feeding audiophiles with myths and fantasies of the pseudoscientific variety for essentially a generation. Guess what? Maybe the upcoming generations of audiophile consumer isn't as uneducated or as docile as might be expected. Maybe the mainstream media isn't as capable in promoting the intended message as the "high-end" audio segment thinks.
Like it or not, "the forums" and communities like those on CA are on the rise. I see this as a healthy development that restores the rights and promotes the interests of consumers. Perhaps this will rhyme with the times in other areas of grassroots advocacy, social change and politics.
Time to end with a dramatic quote on behalf of the would-be hypothetical brotherhood and sisterhood of The Audiophile Consumer and Technical Union...
"I know you're out there. I can feel you now. I know that you're afraid. You're afraid of us. You're afraid of change. I don't know the future. I didn't come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it's going to begin..."
--- Neo, The MatrixBOO!!!
Happy early Halloween folks. :-)
I'm about to head overseas for work for the next few weeks. I might have an opportunity to post something I'm working on which was intended for this week while over there - depends on time and quality of Internet access. Otherwise, I will catch you all in November...
Addendum: Just in case people might miss the messianic humor expressed for dramatic effect at the end, remember that the drama began with the hyperbolic "birth of a new world" and revolutionary "paradigm shift" claims about MQA. Were they expecting the "blowback" and counterarguments to be timid when they unabashedly unleashed these claims?
As I said in the concluding remarks to the blind test last year, I think MQA is nothing more than a "tempest in a teapot". After all these years, I believe all we've seen have been relative disinterest in the eyes of the public and a very healthy skepticism among audiophiles. MQA this year has obviously been trying to drum up interest in other ways like "MQA-CD" and the recent "MQA Live".
I see that an audience member took an extended video of the event:
Great to see the post-presentation discussion was captured (start at 41:00 onward). An opportunity to look at what the pro-MQA side thinks and how they speak about it. A few notable claims:
1. "Triangular coding" (I presume he's referring to the wedge-like MQA "information space") is removing inaudible stuff... Maybe. But good for the audio engineer to bring up that it's not necessarily true. Remember, if we are to believe that "hi-res" makes a difference and is audible even though science tells us that >20kHz is inaudible for mere adult humans, is it not also arbitrary for MQA to claim that their "triangular coding" has for sure captured everything that's needed in the ultrasonic spectrum? (Remember, MQA causes a loss of bit-depth so there's no point in arguing on the benefits of high bit-depth for MQA.) It's simply justification for lossy encoding and saying the algorithm is "good enough for hi-res".
2. Jbara (43:30): "They also make this flawed assumption that all A-to-D's and D-to-A's are entirely lossless in their process as well". Someone chimes in the slogan "end-to-end". He claims that there's some kind of special customization between devices... Hmmm, where's the evidence Mr. Jbara? Based on measurements between an inexpensive Dragonfly Black and Mytek Brooklyn, it's hard to imagine there's much special going on here. Likewise, there's no evidence of MQA playback capable of producing some kind of "standard" or "authenticated" sound despite this "analogue to analogue" claim. Show us the evidence.
3. Jbara (44:20): "As a category, D-to-A's are not lossless themselves." What does this mean? Are you just saying that DACs (and ADCs) are simply not perfect and all have varying resolution? If that's all you mean, I don't think anyone disagrees. Care to show and tell rather than just tell us how MQA "fixes" anything here? Only then can we know if you even know what you're talking about.
4. Nice to know that "the labels' relationship with MQA is not exclusive". Yup. They're just testing the waters to see if this will fly. The question is: "what does the sales pitch look like?"
By 47:05 we get into some unhappiness about forums that attack Bob Stuart's integrity... Good job to the fellow at 48:20 for bringing up the psychological strain of the presentation for Chris or anyone in that position. Things then go into whether "honest debate" happens on CA, getting personal, and thread moderation...
51:25 there's talk about the Sound-On-Sound article from August 2016. Go ahead, read it and check out the MQA-sanctioned graphs and press material. Ultimately, it's more of the same claims with yet more words aimed at the fanciful idea that MQA does something remarkable in the time domain because of its filters. Of the MQA press articles, it is one of the more convincing looking ones... But ultimately it does not give us any more insight into what MQA actually does or does not do. Nor demonstrates the veracity of claims being forwarded. I gather Lee Scoggins feels the contents of this article as having enhanced his faith.
At this point, there's really not much left to say if all it does is to "beat a dead horse"... Of course, I thought this way last year around this time. Actually, come to think of it, there are a couple more measurements I could try... :-)